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Opinion | Reality doesn’t support AG’s views on sentencing reforms

Steve Marshall essentially blamed sentencing reform for the death of a police officer last week. Alabama’s corrections system is more to blame.

Attorney General Steve Marshall participated in the Alabama State Fraternal Order of Police 2021 Memorial Service Friday May 7, 2021 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

In 2011, according to figures the Alabama Department of Corrections provided, nearly 6,000 people incarcerated in Alabama prisons completed re-entry programs. Ten years later, less than half that number — 2,191 — went through the programs. 

It was a similar story for those completing drug treatment programs — successful completions fell by nearly 70 percent. And incarcerated people earning a GED fell by more than half in that span. 

These are the programs that rehabilitate the men and women we send to prison each year. The programs that educate and train and rehab the human beings that we all should care about. 

This is why we have a Department of CORRECTIONS, and not a Department of Lock People Up and Forget About Them. Part of our stated goal is to rehabilitate these men and women, providing them life skills and professional training that will allow them to become productive contributors to our society. 

And we’re failing miserably at doing so. Many of these programs, according to officers and other ADOC employees who I’ve spoken with over the last few months, aren’t regularly staffed — because ADOC is so woefully understaffed that they’ve been forced to cut back or cancel some offerings. 

Making matters even worse, we have almost zero mental health care options in our prisons. In fact, in most cases, a cell is serving as “treatment” for those suffering from mental health issues. It is so bad that the Trump Department of Justice sued Alabama over the lack of mental health care in state prisons. 

None of this is probably news to you. You’ve been hearing it now for months, if not years. But it apparently is news to one person: Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. 

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Marshall’s office issued a press release/op-ed on Tuesday, in which he shamelessly exploited the death of a Sheffield police officer to make the case that sentencing reform measures pursued by Alabama lawmakers — Alabama Republican lawmakers, mind you — led directly to the officer’s death. And he somehow managed to gloss right over all those other failures — many of them lying at his feet. 

Sheffield Police Sgt. Nick Risner was killed last week allegedly by Brian Lansing Martin. According to information provided by police officials, Martin carjacked a Tennessee man, killed him, dumped his body in the middle of an intersection and then ran from police. He was cornered just outside a Walmart and began firing. One of those bullets struck Risner and ultimately killed him.  

Obviously, this was a terrible, horrible crime. Risner, by all accounts, was a good cop and a good person who was well liked in the community and by his fellow officers. He should be on the streets protecting his community today, and we’d all be better for it. 

Instead, he was the victim and now his death is being shamelessly used by the state’s AG to push an agenda attacking sentencing reforms. 

In reality, however, the whole, sad story is the perfect encapsulation of a broken corrections system that rarely rehabilitates and that routinely corrupts. 

Martin had been previously convicted of manslaughter in the 2012 shooting death of his father. According to news reports at the time, the two had a rocky relationship and the shooting stemmed from a weird encounter in which Martin’s father was allegedly wielding a sword. Regardless, Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge.

As part of that deal, Martin was told he could be eligible for release in just over three years. Everyone, including the local DA, was happy with that agreement and proudly made that clear to the media at the time. No one, it seemed, believed Martin was such a danger to the community that he might shoot it out with cops after killing a man. 

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So, that’s how his incarceration went: Martin, who had one other arrest for allegedly giving cocaine to someone — an indictment that was ultimately tossed — and a few speeding tickets prior to the altercation with his father, was released in 2016 after serving three years and two months of his sentence. 

There is no criminal record in the state database for Martin since that time. 

But last week, more than five years after his release, Martin committed this horrible crime. And along comes Steve Marshall to lay it all on his early release thanks to that dadgum sentencing reform. 

Hoping that striking while the loss of Risner is still so fresh that it will elicit an emotional response and no one will consider checking the facts of it all. 

The crux of Marshall’s argument is this: “I’m glad we’ve all agreed that we need to build prisons, but strangely, I seem to be alone in the view that most of our current prison population ought to stay locked up,” Marshall wrote. 

It is a thoroughly idiotic position, and it should be offensive to every citizen of the state that the AG thinks you’re so dumb that you’ll buy this childlike view of our corrections system. 

The simple fact is this: Martin, and thousands of people like him, was never rehabilitated in our prison system. In fact, he likely exited worse than he went in. 

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That’s a problem, since at some point, except for the tiny percentage of prisoners who will serve true life sentences, every single person in our correctional system will be released. All of the men and women who were affected by violence. Who were forced into gangs. Who became hooked on the ever-present drugs. Who never received mental health care. Who never received adequate training or an education. 

All of them will some day get out.

Over the last several years, as our correctional system faced lawsuit after lawsuit from prisoners over the horrid conditions inside those walls, every single one of those lawsuits landed on a desk at the AG’s office. All of them. When the Trump DOJ sued, it went to Marshall. When the SPLC and ACLU and dozens of other groups sued, they went to the AG’s office. 

Steve Marshall has known about the horrible conditions in our prisons and the monumental failures at rehabilitation. He never lifted a finger to correct any of it. He never issued a press release or held a press conference or filed one of those just-for-show lawsuits he loves so much.

At every turn, he has ignored the cries for help, the obvious signs of torture and abuse and the lack of correctional programs. 

There are myriad problems within our corrections system. Sentencing reform isn’t one of them, but Steve Marshall certainly has been.

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Written By

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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